I remember our last conversation on a winter morning. I was in my stuffy classroom at the high school in Ashland Oregon and she was in bed in her small apartment in Bad Krozingen, Germany. It was March and she had decided to die that January. She was running out of money, had been a little sick in the winter and just decided she was done. But her extremely healthy body and mind did not agree. She took to her bed and didn’t die. My mother and aunt flew to Germany and she still didn’t die. She stopped eating and then she stopped drinking and then she still didn’t die for three more weeks. They say this is physically impossible but this is what my cousin and mother explained to me. This grandmother who went to Tibet for her 80th birthday and bitterly complained about having to shit on the side of the road, wasn’t as prepared for death as she thought.
So they got her on the phone in those last terrible weeks and when it rang I excused myself, left my students in French class and went outside my classroom door. It was a dark morning and I was freezing in my teaching dress. I spoke German to my YaYa and I told her I loved her and that it was okay to go. Du darfst jetzt gehen. My teeth were chattering and I told her all the things my mother had said to say, to help her go. YaYa’s voice was feeble and she didn’t have much to say but I could tell she was miserable and also very happy to talk to me. I didn’t make it to Germany even though I had a ticket booked for spring break in March. She had died by then and I didn’t know how to manage the trip as a single mother with a little child. Years later I read in our union contract that 5 days bereavement leave are allowed for grandparents. I didn’t know then and nobody told me and I regret not getting to Germany to pay my respects.
I didn’t tell people at work about my personal life. I lose all power when I need to ask authorities and institutions for special favors or special treatment. I could easily have taken time off of work to go see her but I was so afraid of losing my job, of my fragile tenuous life falling apart. The saddest thing is that she was afraid too. She was afraid of dying. A whole life of anxiety and worry had not prepared her for death. According to my mother she was terrified, terrified of going into the next phase alone, at the end she didn’t really want to die even though she had made her mind up. So much trauma and flight and fear in her life. So much fear that she passed on to all of us and that we take all our new age practices and psychology and love to try to vanquish. We none of us wanted to grow up and be so anxious.
My grandmother and I had so many arguments about her fears which I, feminist and West Coast US person, thought were ridiculous. She, refugee, bride at 20 to a man approved of by her family, feeling broke much of her later life, argued back.
I remember parking her car after midnight in a tiny village in France where there was, supposedly, no parking. And it was Sunday. I was sure we were safe. Look at all the shutters bolted against the night, any police that live in this village are fast asleep. She was sure a disaster, a towed car, an embarrassing incident with the police were imminent.
I firmly believed that we could talk or charm our way out of anything. She firmly believed that disrespecting social norms could lead to terrible suffering. I couldn’t explain why I believed what I did. She didn’t want to hear my stories of interactions with Parisian police that had often ended up oddly flirtatious and innocuous. Her fears struck me as ridiculous. I wanted her to know that we had power, that we could speak French and smile and even if we got a ticket, it was something we could afford. I think she wanted me to respect the fact that in her life she also had evidence that in a few years one could lose everything, that borders could shift, that invading armies could walk right into your living room and eat your potatoes, take your furniture, take you if you were a woman.
We sat in the car in that little sleeping village in France in the middle of the night and got so angry with each other. I was driving so I had the last word and we left the car there but neither of us slept well that night, in that small dark village, because we were so upset with each other.
She would have had much to say about the state of the world today. I paraded around the world with my white American entitlement and she challenged me to question its solidity, its durability, its certainty. We didn’t have good tools for challenging each others’ world views but we learned so much from each other.
I miss my grandmother so much. I miss her soft skin and her way of calling me Kimberlienchen and her wise counsel and her insistence on things being as lovely as possible even if it always made life so much more complicated.